Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Multi-level marketing (MLM) companies such as Herbalife and Esika have proliferated in Bolivia in recent years, as in many parts of the world. Touting extravagant economic gains, freedom to control one’s schedule, women’s empowerment, cosmopolitan travel, and luxury, these companies and their vendors frequently foreground the transformative effects that their products produce, for consumers and especially for their direct sellers. MLM recruiters explicitly present their ventures as remaking salespeople from the inside out. Under recruiters’ watchful eyes, the new vendor’s body and ebullient personality are molded into living testaments to the trustworthiness and efficacy of their products. At Herbalife enrollment events, for example, sponsors urge youth recruits to abandon formal schooling and instead invest their money and time in the company’s “University of Success,” assuring they will achieve both the fabulous income and self-realization that their college-bound peers will not. MLM supervisors further deploy mobile technologies to ensure that midlevel sellers are meeting personal and company-mandated “goals”: captivating new recruits. And yet, many such companies cannot shake the persistent doubts that their promises, payouts, and required personhoods are part of fraudulent pyramid schemes shrouded in an evangelical zeal of monetized social networks and kin relations. This paper examines the way two such companies and their army of retailers seek to produce and embody winning MLM “champions,” as well as the forms of interpersonal policing and institutional surveillance that emerge as multilevel marketers seek to protect the brands’ reputation—and their own—from those who would discredit (or regulate) them.